Some bands are meant to be seen live, and Montreal’s Bell Orchestre is one of them. Performing at La Tulipe this Sunday April 19, they will be in their hometown on the heels of the 2009 instrumental album release, As Seen Through Windows. A swirling, cinematic album, it promises fodder for a great show—and the band’s reputation for sweaty, infectiously visceral performances only adds to the buzz.
Every reviewer will cite the Arcade Fire connection. Two of the six Bell Orchestre members share membership with the group, although beyond a certain cathartic, orchestral element, the stylistic similarities are quite limited. Music from Bell Orchestre progresses through unexpected twists and turns. Varied instruments appear spontaneously and without warning—from trumpet, French horn, violin, upright bass, to drums—often with the effect of casting a track in a whole new direction. There is not the intense repetition, nor the conventional hooks and choruses and patterns, that make Arcade Fire’s music so contagious. Rather, there is an amalgamation of influences—from classical, to rock, to soul—reconfigured and recast in an unclassifiable post-rock collage. At times, the album calls to mind Eno’s ambient music.
Bell Orchestre’s As Seen Through Windows follows the 2005 release, Recording a Tape the Colour of Light. Like the first album, each track blurs into the next, a study in landscapes and images and perception. The album names, evocative as they are of vision and the practice of seeing, are in this capacity very a propos. To immerse oneself in Bell Orchestre’s music is to travel through a winding visual landscape, never certain what may be just around the bend. Each listener will find something different to discover in each track. In As Seen Through Windows, one moment you may find yourself in an Austenian romance as you walk the English countryside; the next evokes the jazzy sexuality of a Bond movie, or the contained sensuality of ballroom dancing always about to burst on the dance floor. Then suddenly you are huddling in a bomb shelter as sirens blare and bombs fall.
If this diversity is the greatest strength of the album, it can also be its greatest weakness. Some might find it unnerving to traverse such a broad emotional spectrum in such a short time. But, for those willing to take the chance, the result can be effective. The deep horns simulating sirens in “Elephant” break into a violin crescendo, which suddenly intrudes and infuses the track with an ethereal fairy-tale quality. An unanticipated hope emerges and one has the sense of being lost in the forest and following a glimmer of light in the distance. Other pieces are somewhat more cohesive. The somber “Icicles/Bicycles” is reminiscent of Vivaldi’s winter pieces, strangely appropriate coming from a Montreal band. “The Gaze” is a frenzied, upbeat track building towards an ever-impending finale which hits suddenly and drops off unexpectedly.
As Seen Through Windows may not always make for a relaxing or pleasant listen. For instance, the galloping tempo of the brief first track, “Stripes”, throws you into the fire without warning, with nothing to hold on to. There is a discomfort inherent in some of the tracks, and it isn’t necessarily the kind of music you’ll pop in while washing the dishes. But as mood music, as cinematic music, as a study in musical virtuosity, it is a fascinating and often beautiful listen. And as a live performance, Bell Orchestre promises to be a great show.
Bell Orchestre performs at La Tulipe Sunday, April 19. 4530 Papineau. Doors open 7:30 pm. Set starts at 10:50 pm. $15.